Darius Rucker, “Alright.” Performing after Carrie Underwood praised his ability to switch from rock ’n’ roll to country, Rucker unveiled a good-time pop-rock tune that wasn’t all that different from his Hootie and the Blowfish days. Although perhaps the reference to Patsy Cline was more of a nod to Nashville. Rucker, like Swift, sounded a bit off. But if Swift’s performance was oddly bad, this was just predictably bland. Rucker worked the crowd like he’d be selling records in the lobby after the show, running through the audience and high-fiving those in the expensive seats (the CMAs are open to the public). Pop & Hiss would say more about the song, but we’ve forgotten the performance while writing this summary.
Miranda Lambert, “White Liar.” Here we go. Nashville should take note: All country award shows should be opened by Lambert. Though “White Liar” isn’t the most fiery song on her recent “Revolution” (Pop & Hiss was pulling for “Sin for a Sin”), there’s plenty to like here. Lambert is just the right mix of sweetness and grit, pulling the song to a mischievous stop in its final moments to reveal its lyrical twist. Her band is kickin’, and she’s on point.
Brad Paisley, “Welcome to the Future.” Songs about nostalgia have become a modern Nashville staple, and Paisley reveals his cute and relatable charm with this tune. Kids and parents unite as Paisley looks back on his days when he longed for a giant coin-op machine and tells us that now he has Pac-Man on his phone. References to video chats and homecoming queens stand side by side. As Paisley wields a sparkly blue guitar, he’s a safe and modern star, coming across as the kind of rock ‘n’ roll heartthrob who isn’t afraid to accessorize.
Zac Brown Band, “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Faithful and crowd-pleasing, Zac Brown Band had the chops and the sharp violins to pull off the cover. But it’s an odd choice, considering this is one of country’s most popular young acts and a group that will surely be in contention for best new artist at the Grammy Awards. An original would have been a better choice. We’ve heard this tune before, but the smokey D&D-like effects were kinda cool. Still, a cover here?
George Strait, “Twang.” Country, straight-up. Sandwiched in the middle of three performances, Strait didn’t get a prime showcase, but there’s nothing to dislike here. This is lean-back, kick-up-your boots country, and Strait does it as well as anyone. A-
Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now.” With the barren trees of fall and strands of Christmas lights, this backdrop was all elegant holiday loneliness. Hillary Scott isn’t the world’s most charismatic vocalist, but this ballad suits her just right. It’s a gracefully easy melody line, and Lady Antebellum is better when not trying to rock out. Charles Kelley trades off with her, sounding like the completely uninteresting dude next door, but this single belongs to Scott.
Carrie Underwood, “Cowboy Casanova.” So long Nashville, as Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova” carries a slinky groove more fit for a dance club. Underwood’s high heels and revealing outfit, as well as her backup singers in cocktail waitress attire, struck a more risque vibe. She could have been [insert pop star here] at your standard MTV award show, sporting a very glam outfit as she strutted and swung across the stage. But a spunky Underwood is better than ballad Underwood, and “Casanova” does a swell job of disguising what is — for all intents and purposes — a Top 40 cut with an occasional flash of country guitar notes.
Vince Gill and Daughtry, “Tennessee Line.” A relatively stark stage kept the emphasis straight on the vocalists here, but there wasn’t enough Gill. This seemed more marketing ploy than song, setting up the inevitable future country album from Daughtry.
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